“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (Jn. 3:16)
From The Second Half of the Cross
The apostle Paul is one of the great examples of the contrast between our own life-plan and God’s plan. Paul is the chosen apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15) precisely because his original idea of how to serve God was so far off the mark that after his conversion Paul could not possibly look down his nose at the Gentiles for worshipping dumb idols. Any other highly educated Pharisee would have great difficulty accepting and carrying out the mission to convert the Gentiles to the Christian faith, but Paul after Damascus had no allusions as to the utter failure of his own well-intentioned but misguided plan to rightly serve God by persecuting the early church. A well-educated Pharisee filled with self-righteous contempt for the pagan Gentiles could never have successfully carried out God’s mission of loving outreach contained within the new gospel message of reconciliation and forgiveness through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But a Christ-transformed Saul of Tarsus fits the job description for a first-century missionary evangelist perfectly.
The life of Paul confirms the incredible wisdom and foresight of God in being able to manipulate events to turn apparent defeat into victory. Paul as Saul the Pharisee is the deadliest enemy of the new Christian church in Jerusalem. Saul is arresting Christians, throwing them in jail, and having them beaten or in some cases killed (Acts 26:10). Saul is the last person on the planet that anyone would think could become a convert to Christianity, let alone become one of its greatest champions. Yet it is precisely this extremely misguided effort by Saul that allows God to flip Saul into Paul on the road to Damascus, thus creating in a moment an exceptionally qualified spokesman with unparalleled credentials to present the case to the world that Jesus is indeed the Christ. Paul’s education at the “feet of Gamaliel” at Jerusalem, places Paul’s knowledge of the Law and the Prophets in the Old Testament above reproach. Combined with the super-humility that resulted from experiencing God’s forgiving love, and the sensational nature of his conversion, this makes Paul a uniquely powerful advocate for the new Christian faith. The forgiving grace of Jesus Christ that produces this quick turnaround in Paul’s life, allows Paul to look at the Gentiles and know that God can do the same thing with them as well, no matter how misguided, deceived, and outwardly lost they appear to be.
Paul’s past also uniquely prepares Paul to attack his new mission with the expectation that persecution would come to whoever the first evangelists to the Gentile world would be. Paul had an insider’s understanding of the perils that lay ahead. In one of his letters to the churches (Galatians 1:13), Paul says that he wasted the church in Jerusalem, hailing men and women into prison, causing some to blaspheme and putting others to death.
When Paul ventured out to spread the Christian gospel, he entered upon the mission field knowing fully in advance what could and probably would happen to him. Paul was aware of the evil that the Jews could do to him for preaching about Jesus the Christ, because he had already done these same things himself to other believers before his conversion. Paul knew intimately about the depth of animosity that some Jews would have against the new Christian faith. Paul knew that he was not above being beaten by the authorities on several occasions, or being nearly stoned to death in Lystra. While most people would wash their hands of this evangelical mission to the Gentile world after such a stoning by the Jews, and tell God to find someone else, Paul is not offended at God for his rough treatment at Lystra and gets up unphased and undeterred to continue his missionary journey.
The second half of the cross is clearly seen in the life of Paul. When Paul meets Jesus on the road to Damascus, after that Paul gives up all ties to the conventional Jewish life in Jerusalem. Paul sacrifices family, friends, social status, political connections, moderate wealth, and a reasonably secure and comfortable life, to the cross of Christ. On his final visit to Jerusalem many years after his conversion, Paul is nearly pulled to pieces by the Jerusalem populace who are offended by his statement that God sent him to preach salvation to the despised and loathsome Gentiles. Even as Paul is writing some of his New Testament letters to the churches, which have been cherished by millions of people for nearly two thousand years, Paul is writing these letters from a prison. From all outward appearances Paul is a failure, or he would not be in a prison after so many years of faithful missionary service. Conventional worldly wisdom would say that Paul should have been by that time a successful and respected religious philosopher in a world class university in Rome, Athens, or Alexandria.
But the second half of the cross does not operate according to the standards of the world. If God wants to provide quiet time for a few years for a chosen apostle like Paul to reflect and compose a portion of the New Testament, then it is not a shame to be performing this task within the cell of a prison or in a guarded, hired house in Rome. Like Joseph in Potiphar’s house in Egypt, outward appearances are often of secondary importance in our walk with God.
The low road of humble obedience and service to God excludes all pretenders. There is no end to the number of people who will line up to become Pharisees, teachers of the law, and Sadducees, as long as this comes with the appearance and seal of success, the respect of the world, the comforts of wealth, and the excitement of having real power and influence. Paul as Saul the Pharisee had all of these things, but he let them all go after his conversion on the road to Damascus. Paul the apostle suffered the loss of worldly reputation and respect to the cross of Christ, in response to the love and forgiveness shown by Jesus Christ to him on that road to Damascus.
The life of Paul is another example in the Bible of how the cross of Christ inspires unselfish love. Paul responds to God’s love, in his own words suffering the loss of all things worldly, and through the course of his ministry to the Jews and the Gentiles is transformed day-by-day into a person who can not only write, but also live the verses in I Corinthians 13: 1-7. Instead of arresting and killing Christian believers, Paul allows his self-in-charge nature to be crucified along with Christ in order to bring the good news of the gospel of God’s love to others. We have a glimpse in the salutations recorded in Romans sixteen, of a small sample of the large number of converts, friends, and acquaintances Paul made in his missionary journeys, of a man who has not only learned to genuinely love people, but who is deeply loved by them. Paul’s conversion to Christianity and his growth as a person has to be one of the great marvels of human history.